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This article by Richard John Neuhaus, who passed away January 8, 2009, was published in the February 1999 issue of First Things, and is reprinted below in honor of the feast day of Mother Teresa .

A couple of years ago physicist Alan Sokal published an article in Social Text arguing in the most abstruse postmodernistic jargon that gravity, among other things, is a social construct. It was a hoax, of course, and when Sokol publicly revealed the fact it caused quite a sensation, heaping embarrassment upon the editors and their academic colleagues who had long since lost the capacity to discern the difference between rational discourse and their trendy gibberish. The academy was not amused.

One might expect at first that Susan Kwilecki of the religious studies department and Loretta S. Wilson of economics at Radford University, Virginia, are up to a Sokal-like prank. Their article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the lead article no less, is titled “Was Mother Teresa Maximizing Her Utility? An Idiographic Application of Rational Choice Theory.” There is, alas, not the slightest hint that the authors are anything less than serious, and solemnly so.

It is a long and tedious article, and I will not bore you with the details. It builds on the work of Laurence Iannaccone, who has been pushing the “rational choice” theory of religion for some time, also in the pages of JSSR. The idea is to “approach God as a commodity” and to understand that religious believers are “consumers” rationally calculating their “investment” in a “product” such as salvation supplied by “entrepreneurs” who establish religious “firms.” The theory is another in a long history of efforts to turn the study of religion into a “science,” as that reductionist god is defined by modernity. Since there is no Nobel Prize in religion, some in religious studies, it seems, are trying to compete in the field of economics.

A rational choice reading of Mother Teresa helps us understand that her vaunted love for the poor had another purpose: “Aiding the poor purchased direct contact with Christ. . . . Closeness to God, not the alleviation of human pain in itself, was the preferred religious product.” “Thus from a rational choice perspective, essential facets of Mother Teresa’s world-famous mission to the poor reflected her preference for an expensive religious commodity—close proximity to God, or holiness.” For Mother Teresa, worship, the sacramental life, and the pursuit of holiness took priority even over helping people in need. “The rational choice reading of holiness as Mother Teresa’s ranking preference explains this otherwise puzzling lapse of compassion for the sick as calculated utility maximization.”

Considering Mother Teresa “as the owner of a successful religious firm,” it becomes obvious that the Missionaries of Charity order “produces a product mix of charity linked with spiritual awareness and Christian salvation.” The “product mix” helps explain her “entrepreneurial success.” “On the one hand, fostering nearness to God, Mother Teresa sold traditional Catholic products—the sacraments, the condemnation of abortion, and reverence for Church authority. On the other hand, with charity as her chief commodity, the firm simultaneously marketed a sideline of nonsectarian humanitarian values—the obligation to help others, a recognition of the sacredness of all life—that appealed to liberal, non-Catholic consumers.”

While Mother Teresa’s “professions of self-abnegating surrender to God are difficult to comprehend within the rational choice framework,” a more careful examination leads to the conclusion that she “is a calculating, profit-seeking religious entrepreneur.” Her claims to rely entirely upon God and to refuse financial support that might compromise her vision, “although irrational from a materialistic standpoint, from the point of view of the charismatic, who answers directly to God—the ultimate head of the firm—”reflect “means-to-end thinking.” The authors allow that rational choice theory is unlikely to explain a phenomenon such as Mother Teresa in “all its fullness,” but they conclude that, “While not sufficient by itself and certainly not the only interpretation the data will bear, rational choice theory provides a valuable addition to the arsenal of analytic approaches to religion.”

Perhaps the arsenal will be put to work in a forthcoming article in JSSR, “Was Jesus’ Investment in the Cross Maximizing His Utility?” Actually, one does not have to imagine that, for these are precisely the kinds of questions discussed at length by rational choice religion scholars such as Iannaccone, Lawrence Young, Mark Chaves, and others. When I was a pastor in a black parish in Brooklyn many years ago, twelve-year-old Michael asked in catechism class, “If Jesus was doing what he really wanted to do, why was it a sacrifice?” It was a good question, asked in honest wonder and opening the door to reflections of great spiritual and intellectual interest. As applied to religion, rational choice theory is not even one small intellectual step beyond young Michael’s perceptive question. And, of course, in presuming to scientifically “explain” the phenomenon of holiness, it closes doors. Far from being sophisticated, it is every bit as vulgar as those Christian business boosters who promote Jesus as “history’s greatest salesman.” Or the psychobabble counterpart to rational choice that claims to explain religion in terms of dependency, wish projection, and other tools in the analytical arsenal of the intellectually and spiritually stunted project that is academic religious studies.

Richard John Neuhaus was the founding editor of First Things.

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